Electric Cars are not THE Answer

Electric Cars are not THE Answer

I spent ten years managing an electric car project in Vermont in the 1990s. After my good friend Harold Garabedian and our talented EV mechanic, Steve Miracle, I probably logged more EV miles in the 90s then anyone in Vermont. It was great work at the time, the cars were fun and peppy and we spent hundreds of hours showing that EVs could be possible.

But in the last ten years I’ve grown more skeptical of the way EVs are increasingly presented as THE solution to Vermont’s transportation energy challenges. In the 1990s, EVS were part of the solution, we could keep transportation dollars in state and reduce GHG emissions by switching from gas to electricity. But we also talked about public transit and downtown development and policies that would encourage people to walk and bike more.

But if you read state plans or listen to policy makers these days, EVS usually come first with the requisite nod to other modes. This came home to me at a recent conference where a Vermont environmental group proposed adding 55,000 new electric vehicles to Vermont’s vehicle fleet in the next eight years.

This is a big vision with some careful thought behind it but to me it also illustrates a car-centric vision for solving our transportation challenges, and, in doing so, under-cuts efforts to help people drive less, leaves out those who are too young or too old or who can’t drive for other reasons and hurts low-income Vermonter’s trapped in the costs of the present system.

Well-meaning people can disagree and I welcome other thoughts, but here I present two reasons why I think you can’t lead with EVS and expect other modes to grow. (1)

First of all, in Vermont, we own about a car per person.  So, if we add 55,000 (2) new EVs that will translate into about 55,000 car drivers – first adopters who are likely to be an environmentally motivated and affluent bunch. People who care about Vermont’s future.

But if you put them all in their own cars, you take away potential advocates for something different and add them into the same completely car-centered universe we live in now — a universe based on about 80 years of car-centric planning that chews up most of the state’s transportation budget (about 90%) as well as large swaths of our cities and towns. Imagine instead if more of us took the bus, or walked and cycled, then there would be more advocates for more bus routes, safer sidewalks and cycle lanes that don’t end. More use of other modes means more champions for those modes AND greater understanding of the challenges and opportunities available.

Secondly, the group proposed getting more Vermonters to car-pool. Unfortunately, you can’t endorse a car-centered world and expect people to drive less. One of the strongest predictors of how much you drive is the numbers of cars in a household. Places where households own less cars, people drive less. As the numbers of cars in the US have increased, car-pooling has decreased. In Vermont car-pool rates have steadily declined hitting a new low in the past census. The reason is simple, if you own a car, you use it. Why wouldn’t you? Parking is cheap or free and there are limited alternatives.

Electric cars should be part of the answer, but if we just lead with electric cars, changes to the existing car-centric system will be impossible. We need to start with thoughtful, research-based approaches that provide real alternatives to driving alone — safe cycle lanes, sidewalks that don’t end, more frequent bus routes and TDM strategies that disincentive driving. The good news is that there is a lot of research and a host of transportation planning professionals in Vermont who know about what works. We can do this in thoughtful and strategic ways that don’t penalize Vermonters and provide real alternatives. But we can’t lead with EVs and expect other modes to thrive.

============================================================================(1) Here I am not stepping into the arguments about EVs vs other modes. Some may believe that simply electrifying our present transportation system is the best transportation solution. But I think for a host of reasons from the full environmental impacts (life cycle) to the impacts on society and public health, most would agree that it would be better to reduce total car trips.  At Sustainable Transportation Vermont we follow a framework that puts walking first, then cycling, then public transit (see Robert Cervero among others).

(2) 55,000 is the group’s recommendation, so I use that number, but I think this argument holds for 5,000 or 10,000 also.

Richard Watts teaches policy and media studies at the University of Vermont and is a regular bike commuter, transit rider and pedestrian from his home in Hinesburg.